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Published in: Dorestad in an international Framework. New Research on Centres of Trade and Coinage in Carolingian Times: 137-141. Turnhout, Brepols


Tracing trade routes is one of the classic sports of archaeology. The reason for its early popularity in the discipline’s history, and for its later refinement, is of course archaeology’s potential for tracing the movements of things. Normally, we know where an object of the past ended its journey: the place where it was found. Tracing its place of production is a basic skill of our profession. We expect ourselves and our colleagues to distinguish between Slavonic and Rhenish pottery, and we know of experts who can tell us in which of the Slavonic and Frisian regions the various types where produced, and when.

The specialists may disagree on the details, and now and then a new production site is found, and some datings and distribution maps are revised. But in general there is a well-established and trustworthy understanding concerning when and along which routes the things of the past did move. This knowledge supplies a solid basis for discussing the other aspect of the movement of things, namely how it came about. What kinds of people had the pot in their possession from when it left the potter’s hands until it was crushed in a settlement somewhere, or filled with cremated bones and lowered into the ground? And how did it change hands – was it sold or given, or perhaps inherited or stolen?

In this paper I will discuss one particular type of undertaking in which things were moved, namely trade. That is a concept which has been highly disputed within archaeology and anthropology during the last half-century. Readers will be familiar with Karl Polanyi’s, George Dalton’s and the other substantivists’ refusal to acknowledge trade as a prominent activity of pre-industrial society, and with Marcel Mauss’ and others’ identification of the gift as the main mode of exchange in such societies (e.g. Polanyi 1944; Polanyi 1968; Dalton 1977; Samson 1991; Hedeager 1994; Mauss 2002). Although the work of the substantivist pioneers’ was groundbreaking and useful, I think we can put some aspects of their theories to rest on the shelf labelled ‘outdated critique of Western Civilization’ (Skre in press-a). It cannot be denied that substantivists were influenced by one of the great delusions of the late 18th and the 19th century – that Man in Western Society is spoiled by capitalism, and the true nature of man can only be found in societies not yet contaminated by this disease. Such societies could, one thought, be found in the past by archaeologists, and by anthropologists in remote areas of the World.

Like several colleagues I think it is time to decolonize this image of ‘the other’, past or present, and to open our eyes to trade as a thing people do (Skre 2008c, 2008d). Has there ever lived a man or woman on earth who has not exchanged one thing for another?

But the exchange of a good stone axe for the furs from two wolves between a traveller and a hunter, the simple swap of a knife for a shirt between friends in tavern in 8th-century Venice, or the Hansa merchant buying dried fish on the Bergen docks on a rainy day in 1284 was not one and the same phenomenon. There are a variety of social contexts in which the act of exchange can take place, and there are various degrees of organisation. Therefore, there is little to gain from considering trade as being ‘the same’ in all times and places. Trade is an activity of humans, and therefore it is as varied as any other of the things humans engage in. For this reason, the formalist idea that all trade is performed by atomized actors who are governed by ‘the invisible hand of the market’ is truly misleading. Trade is performed by humans within the societies and contexts where they led their lives, and trade cannot be understood independently of those circumstances.

(Read it on Academia.edu)